Return with us now to the tumultuous years leading up to the War of 1812, when fear of “foreign influence”—by England or France, depending on whether you were a Republican or Federalist—was a dominating issue in American politics. Jerome Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon, had recently spent several years in the United States, where he married Elizabeth Patterson, the beautiful, ambitious daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. In 1810, Jerome was on the throne of Westphalia, while Elizabeth was in America with their son, Jerome Napoleon. (The couple would never see each other again.) According to historian Michael Vorenberg of Brown University, having a nephew of the emperor of France growing up on American soil might have made the pro-British Federalists uneasy, or, just as likely, suggested to them a way to tie the Republicans to the French Legion of Honor, the Trilateral Commission of its day. Desiring to get out in front of the issue—or possibly seeking to score points against the Federalists, who had their own embarrassing ties to the British aristocracy—Republican Sen. Philip Reed of Maryland introduced an amendment meant to strengthen the existing “emoluments clause” in Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution.
This clause reads:
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Reed’s proposed amendment extended the ban from office-holders to “any citizen of the United States” and made the penalty loss of citizenship:
“If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.”
Reed’s bill passed both houses easily, and as of Dec. 9, 1812, had been ratified by 12 states and seemed headed for adoption, at which point war intervened. Here, histories diverge. The mainstream view is that the “Titles of Nobility Amendment” (TONA) never achieved the necessary 13 ratifications—three quarters of the 17 states as of 1810—and fell further behind as more states joined the union. That ought to have been the end of it, says Jol A. Silversmith, a lawyer in private practice who has written the definitive account of the “missing amendment.” And so it was until the 1980s, when a conspiracy-minded researcher named David Dodge came across an 1825 copy of the Constitution including this provision. Further research led Dodge to conclude that TONA had been ratified by Virginia no later than 1819 and was an accepted, if largely unnoted, part of the Constitution from then until its mysterious disappearance around the time of the Civil War. . . .
In the world of the Thirteenthers, though, it’s all a conspiracy, and the leading suspects are those shady characters who put “esquire” after their names. To quote the Web site Constitutional Concepts, “This Amendment was for the specific purpose of banning participation in government operations by attorneys and bankers who claimed the Title of Nobility of ‘Esquire.’ These people had joined the International Bar Association or the International Bankers Association and owed their allegiance to the King of England.”